Sporting the newest orchestra name in town, the Bach, Beethoven and Brahms Society of Boston, the successor group to the late Boston Classical Orchestra, began its 2016-17 season and its third performance ever on Sunday at Boston’s Faneuil Hall under Steven Lipsitt.
The 34-year-old Boston Classical Orchestra, conducted by Lipsitt for the last 20, filed for bankruptcy last spring. According to the former orchestra’s timpanist, Dennis Sullivan, almost all of the orchestra members [would] be joining BB&B. A seemingly reliable discussion of the transition is here.
On the beautiful, late-summer afternoon, it heartened me to see a substantial audience gather. Certainly, many find music a moving and healing means of observing a tragic anniversary, but I suspect there were also many who wished to hear three very familiar masterpieces and see a brilliant young violinist about to take the music world by storm.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3, generally known by the misnomer Air on the G String, opened the program in an effective amalgam of modern-instrument and period-instrument techniques, e.g., Romantic warmth and tasteful Baroque articulation. Balances were exemplary, the inner parts delivering their interesting rhythms and harmonies under the violins’ beautiful sustained song. Afterward, Lipsitt noted that this movement is perhaps the only piece played with equal frequency at both weddings and funerals; this performance’s mixture of quiet joy and warm nostalgia bore him out.
Twenty-one-year-old Korean violinist In Mo Yang, though still an undergraduate at New England Conservatory, already has many impressive achievements to his credit, including First Prize at the 54th International Paganini Competition in Italy, March 2015—the first time since 2006 that a First Prize was awarded there. In the first movement of Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto, his unfailingly beautiful tone, mercurial mood shifts, and utterly natural transitions from solo-playing to accompanying and back again, indicated an unusually mature and gifted artist. Yang’s technical skill was impeccable everywhere but most impressive of all in the extended solo cadenza, surely one of the most demanding in the literature but effortlessly executed here, with rubato natural as a thoughtful speaker considering his next phrase.
The orchestra’s wind sections, led by Andrew Price’s oboe solo, opened the slow movement, playing with burnished elegance and affection. The solo violinist matched their style and introduced a bit of fantasy later, in the transition from the more agitated minor section back to the reprise of the movement’s beginning. Price resumed his songful tune but now caressed by the dolce filigree of Yang’s accompaniment in a beneficent vision of Elysian fields.
The finale was fully characterized by all the musicians, its prevailing motif swaggering with Hungarian Dance ebullience, but without stinting on the many contrasting moods and styles. Especially delicious was the Turkish-flavored episode, paying tribute to a similar one in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Here, as in many other passages throughout the work, Yang’s playing had a quality of fascination, akin to a young explorer traversing new territories. Lipsitt and the band, in turn, were commendably sensitive to any subtle twist or turn the violinist’s fertile imagination made.
Perhaps reminding us that September 11, 2001 was a day filled with heroism as well as atrocity, the BB&B Society Orchestra rounded off the concert with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Eroica. After Yang’s Brahms, there may have been no more moments with a wide-eyed sense of discovery, but Lipsitt’s and the orchestra’s elegant assurance and corporate sense of purpose remained. To be interpretatively creative with this music is in any case unnecessary. Played with these artists’ skill and commitment, the Eroica still possessed the power to stun, with unconventionalities of many stripes. The epic first movement encompassed a remarkable number of character traits, among them brashness, a more straitlaced authoritarianism, delicacy, and warmth.
The second movement, a famous (at one time, controversial) Funeral March, was sorrowful without being lugubrious but certainly able to turn one’s thoughts back to the events of 15 years ago, still vivid in a great many minds. Little of the movement dropped below mezzo piano (it is challenging to achieve a true piano/pianissimo in Faneuil Hall’s quite live acoustics), but the concluding section of the march, at least, did so movingly; moreover, its momentary pauses as the grief-stricken main theme seems to break apart put a lump in this listener’s throat—as in many others, I suspect.
In the age of recordings, I daresay a great many of us have been conditioned to expect the Eroica scherzo to go hell-bent-for-leather, with thrills, chills, and occasional spills. Lipsitt and his players provided a salutary corrective, demonstrating that goose-pimples are as achievable by precise, unflagging rhythm as by a blistering tempo. Even at a slightly more moderate tempo, the performers consistently conveyed the anticipation of gathering power as well as realizing exhilarating climaxes. The handsome three-part horn calls were another highlight.
At the start of the finale, large dynamic contrasts reinforced the wonderful peculiarity of Beethoven’s conception. The composer utilized a theme from his own ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (the mythological provider of fire to mankind being often metaphorically linked with Beethoven) to create a noble set of variations, and all the solo players, along with their cohorts, displayed their technical skill and musical magnetism. The spine-tingling full-orchestra conclusion combined Promethean defiance and unquenchable affirmation.
In a city so blessed with fine individual musicians and ensembles, launching a new musical enterprise can hardly fail to be daunting, but Steven Lipsitt seems equal to the task. Whether speaking wittily but compellingly of the importance of an orchestra’s subscription income or conducting authoritatively and movingly, he rarely puts a foot or word amiss. May this auspicious season-opener augur well for things to come.
Five events remain in the ensemble’s second season:
Bach’s Flute, Mozart’s Jupiter October 23 @ 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Russian Radiance, Haydn’s London November 20 @ 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm
A Bohemian Christmas December 19
Spring String Spectacular March 5, 2017 @ 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Bach’s Oboe d’amore, Beethoven’s Fifth April 23, 2017 @ 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm